Shopping Tips for Coffee
Coffee is a global commodity, usually produced by small-scale cultivators in dozens of tropical countries across the globe. For something you drink every day, a simple cup of coffee can have significant social impacts on farmers and laborers as well as environmental impacts on tropical ecosystems. The most important impacts associated with coffee cultivation include:
- Working conditions – coffee plantation laborers are often paid less than legal minimums, experience unsafe working conditions, and have limited access to basic medical care. Workers may also have limited or no labor rights to organize to improve their conditions.
- Ecological impacts – When coffee is grown amongst shade trees, plantations can provide a habitat for beneficial native species. Beans grown in the sun produce a higher yield, but require more fertilizers and pesticides. Poor irrigation and waste management practices can result in soil and water degradation.
- Energy use – Most of the energy/greenhouse gas impacts for coffee is a result of heating water to make a cup and wash the mug.
- Health concerns – Coffee contains caffeine, which can cause adverse health effects in pregnant women and adolescents. Coffee also contains antioxidants, which are beneficial for health.
What to look for:
- Certifications ensure your coffee has been produced under industry leading labor and environmental conditions. Fair Trade Certified means that coffee workers receive livable wages, fair labor practices and safe working conditions and that coffee is produced in an environmentally sustainable manner. Bird Friendly certification means coffee is grown in the shade of native vegetation and is in compliance with the USDA’s rules for organic production. Other recognized labor/environmental certifications include Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified. Starbucks is the only major brand to create a similar certification program (*C.A.F.E.) for their own products.
- Packaging: Brick packs, laminate bags and bulk steel canisters are preferred packaging alternatives over single serve cardboard containers, plastic canisters, and glass jars.
At the store
- Buy only certified coffees to help promote basic human rights and environmental protections.
- Compared to drip filter coffee, spray dried (instant) coffee uses less energy and has a lower environmental footprint.
- Heating water and washing the coffee mug are big contributors to the environmental footprint per cup of coffee, so don’t boil more water than required. Wash the coffee mug in cold water if possible, or at a minimum, in a fully loaded dishwasher. Recycle the container if applicable.
- For health, drinking one cup of coffee a day (100mg of caffeine, on average) is unlikely to be harmful for the average person, and may provide beneficial antioxidants. However, pregnant women should restrict their coffee intake.
Scoring Coffee and Tea
Environment scores are assigned to bulk coffee and tea by combining product-level environmental indicators with company-level environmental indicators. Based on the relatively extensive product-level information available for coffee, the summary Environmental score is weighted 75% product-level and 25% company-level. The data for teas was as not as comprehensive over the product’s life cycle, so the summary Environmental score for teas is weighted 50% product-level and 50% company-level.
Product-level Environment scores for this category are based on:
- Product type, because type determines key resource management indicators like the efficiency of flavor extraction per unit of coffee or tea and the amount of hot water heated or wasted. For coffee, there are three product types: whole/ground beans, instant or capsule. For tea, there are two: loose/bagged tea and capsules.
- Packaging type, because these are associated with significant energy and waste management impacts.
- Certifications, because third-parties track product and producer performance across a variety of key environmental metrics like biodiversity impacts and water and energy use.
Social scores are assigned to bulk coffee and tea by combining product-level social indicators (weighted at 50%) with company-level social indicators (weighted at 50%).
Product-level Social scores for this category are based on:
- Certifications, because third-parties track product and producer performance across a variety of key social metrics like working conditions and labor rights.
Health scores are not assigned to bulk coffees and teas because these commodities do not exhibit a consistent set of nutritional attributes — their nutritional quality is determined primarily by whether they are combined with with other foods like milk or sugar. In addition, serving sizes are not standardized and data on ingredient composition or other food facts are generally unavailable.
Environmental Scoring Methodology
For each of the attributes selected as indicators of the environmental performance of bulk coffee and tea products, we apply the following scoring rules:
- Type: Bulk coffee products were categorize into three types: whole/ground beans, instant, and machine capsule (e.g. K-cups). Available life cycle impact studies indicate that two main factors determine the relative environmental impact of a bulk coffee product: efficiency of flavor extraction per kg of coffee beans and amount of hot water heated or wasted. Instant coffee is highly efficient because it is produced in a manufacturing setting where coffee flavor extraction is maximized using food processing equipment. Comparatively, drip coffee prepared using traditional coffee machines typically does not extract as much flavor. Both instant and machine capsule coffees are brewed using only the desired amount of hot water, so consumption of these coffee types generally involves less energy use. In contrast, drip coffee is brewed in larger amounts and is more likely to be wasted, which dramatically increases the overall environmental impact of the cup of coffee. Based on these considerations, the instant and machine capsule coffee categories are preferred over the whole/ground bean category in GoodGuide ratings. Bulk tea products were categorized into two types: loose/bagged and capsule. As with coffee, machine capsules are preferred due to their lower energy use per serving.
- Packaging: Coffee can be packaged in several different types of containers. Several relatively comprehensive studies have examined the impacts of the different types of coffee packaging and GoodGuide integrated their results, focusing primarily on energy consumption/greenhouse gas emissions. Packaging types are preferred in the following order: Brick (vacuum) pack, laminate bag, paper bag, steel can, composite flexible plastic in a cardboard box (typically single serve instant packaging), plastic canister, glass jar, and machine capsule. Note that while machine capsule packaging is the worst type of packaging from an environmental standpoint, it is designed for use in a machine that provides coffee by the drink in the most environmentally preferable manner. No packaging criteria could be applied to the tea category.
- Certifications: Available certifications track product and producer performance on the following environmental criteria: biodiversity policies and impacts, water resource management, energy resource management, pollution impacts and general environmental management policies. The product-level environmental score associated with each certification is summarized in the Certification Assessment section below.
Social Scoring Methodology
We applied the following scoring rules to the attributes used to rate the social impacts of coffee and tea products:
- Certifications: Available certifications track product and producer performance on the following social criteria: policies and practices related to working conditions & benefits, labor & human rights, community engagement, and opportunity & diversity. The product-level social score associated with each certification is summarized in the Certification Assessment section below.
GoodGuide conducted a first-of-its-kind assessment of certifications being applied to coffee and tea commodities to support their use in scoring products. For each certifier active in this product category, we evaluated the coverage and relative stringency of its standards for coffee or tea production. We identified the environmental and social attributes covered by each standard, assessed the level of performance required on each attribute, and considered other key factors such as the percent of product or product line that must be in compliance in order to obtain certification as well as overall program structure.
The certification assessment revealed two points about the programs:
- All programs are relatively strong on environmental criteria and incorporate the basics of agricultural sustainability as audited by a third party certification system. Programs vary more in their coverage of social criteria, but with the exception of USDA Organic and Bird Friendly, most certifications explicitly require fair worker standards, mandate access to potable water and decent working conditions, etc.
- While there are some gradations between the least stringent and the most stringent certifications, all of them represent a clear step above coffees that do not have any certification in an environmental or social context. As a result, coffee products that do not have any certifications generally earn lower scores. Certifications provide credible evidence to consumers that a product has been produced in accordance with basic environmental and social standards. The absence of a certification does not mean that a product was grown under unacceptable conditions, but the consumer has no way of knowing what practices were utilized to produce the commodity they are purchasing.
The following table identifies the certifiers that GoodGuide assessed for use in scoring bulk coffee and tea products and summarizes the environmental and social score associated with each certification:
|Certifier||Environmental Score||Social Score||Notes|
|UTZ||7||9||Based in Europe, the newest certification entity on the market began as an initiative between industry and producers in Guatemala. As of 2007, UTZ certifies more pounds of coffee than any other coffee certification entity.|
|Fairtrade||9 (10 for Tea)||10||In addition to being the highest-scoring coffee certification standard for social criteria, Fair Trade carries a less publicized, but nonetheless robust, environmental certification component.|
|Rainforest Alliance||8||7||Rainforest Alliance uses a comprehensive and robust set of standards developed in partnership with the Sustainable Agriculture Network. Although the certification threshold can be as low as 30% of the product’s ingredients, Rainforest Alliance is transitioning to require 90-100% of ingredients to be certified in order to display the certification logo.|
|Starbucks C.A.F.E.||9.5||8||C.A.F.E. Practices is a program developed by Starbucks with help from Conservation International. It applies exclusively to Starbucks coffee products. The standards are rigorous and are verified by an independent third party, but the program itself is not managed by an independent third party.|
|USDA Organic||8.5 (9 for Tea)||n/a||This certification addresses only a subset of environmental impacts, focusing primarily on the use of pesticides.|
|Bird Friendly||10||n/a||A project of the Smithsonian Zoo Migratory Bird Center, this certification for shade grown coffee uses comprehensive ecological health and biodiversity as indicators of the environmental sustainability of a coffee plantation. Coffee must also be USDA Organic before it can be certified Bird Friendly. This is the highest-scoring coffee certification standard for environmental criteria.|
Note that fewer third-party certifiers are active with tea products than with coffee products. While Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified products are moving into the certified tea market, only tea products with Organic and Fair Trade certifications are currently included in the GoodGuide product catalog.
The “Ratio of Recommended to Restricted” ingredients methodology that GoodGuide utilizes to characterize the core nutritional value of food products is not applied to bulk coffee and tea products. These commodities do not exhibit a consistent set of nutritional attributes — their nutritional quality is determined primarily by whether they are combined with other foods like milk or sugar.